1950s | Vintage Sewing

Green Elephants on Parade!

May 2, 2012

Apple blossom

This is the project I would have made for the “Vintage Modern Design Challenge” – except that my skirt with side pleats took me three months to complete!

I inherited a small length of ‘Tootal’ vintage novelty fabric from the back of one of my grandmother’s drawers at Christmas featuring a four-way rotated design of elephants under trees. We think it was probably an offcut acquired by my great-grandmother, who had the habit of snapping up ‘bargains’ – it was only about twenty inches by forty, the proverbial ‘one yard’ of fabric, and Amy Barickman’s Sateen Blouse pattern seemed very economical in its construction, as well as being more or less contemporary with the material. And since when I hung it out on the line there turned out to be a large number of tiny holes/flaws in the fabric (probably why it never got used in the first place…) I didn’t want to spend too much labour over this project.

By my standards it was, in fact, pretty quick work: only taking a couple of weeks.

Like everyone else who attempted to use this pattern, I soon found that although the instructions appear to specify very precise, customised body measurements (e.g. ‘one-fourth neck measure’), if you make the garment up according to the directions it bears no relation to the illustration whatsover, being basically a vastly wide T-shape. (I calculated that the pattern allows 12 inches of ease across the bust, which then falls straight to the waist.) In addition I had the problem that the sleeves were far longer on me than in the picture.

The directions state simply that those who wish the blouse to fit more ‘snugly’ should slant the side seams inward from (deep) armhole to waist to remove excess fullness. I didn’t have enough spare fabric to make a placket facing, so angled the sides in from 44″ down to 32″, the smallest I dared make the waist and still be able to pull the garment over my shoulders/bust. Because my waist is so high I then had to angle the seam out again to accommodate my hips at the bottom of the blouse! It ended up blousing very loosely to the waist and then being fairly fitted below. I did try narrowing the width at armhole depth considerably to reduce the ‘batwings’ of excess cloth in my armpits, but the result didn’t look any better and didn’t seem to hang so well, so I abandoned that idea….

Eventually I achieved a result not so very far removed from the design concept, as can be seen by the photos. (Modelled here with the belt from the brown linen skirt I’d teamed it with; it also works well unbelted over a fitted skirt.)

As usual it was about 50% machine sewn and 50% worked by hand – for example, the shoulder seams were machined French seams, but the long under-arm-and-side seams were mantua-maker’s (false French) seams with the turn-in sewn by hand, since I simply can’t get these seams narrow enough to run around curves by machine.

Sleeves open and folded back
The pattern directed you to fold the cuffs in half and put them on to the sleeves using a true-bias facing: I simply didn’t understand this, so since my sleeves were far too long anyway I used this excess length as a two-inch cuff and then sewed a two-and-a-half-inch ‘facing’ over the outside to cover the reversed material. This was done entirely by hand as the sleeves had already been sewn up at this point: for an experienced machinist it would no doubt have been simpler to contort the garment under the presser foot to sew a tube onto a tube, but it was far easier (if not perhaps quicker) for me to insert one hand up the inside of the sleeve and just backstitch the facing on as usual, and then wrap the selvedge around the edge of the ‘cuff’ and sew it down by hand through only one thickness of the doubled cloth underneath. The sewing machine just does straight stitching on flat cloth, and I’m not used to being so limited.

(click for closeup)The narrow hem I did by hand using plain hemstitch rather than an invisible hem, thinking it would be quicker (it was 2am on the night before I wanted to wear the blouse). In fact it took over an hour and I probably could have machined it, as it wouldn’t have been any more obvious on the outside than it is 🙁

To face the inside of the neck opening I made my first attempt at creating my own ‘bias binding’ out of the small scraps of fabric remaining, first using the Moebius strip technique with the machine (which was too wasteful as it required whole square pieces, and created too many lumpy seams), and then following period instructions on sewing together bias strips by hand. The result was like magic: it really worked, without any need to slash seam allowances, and even folded together around the shallow V of the back neck. I crossed the ends of the strips over at the front as directed; fortunately I made a neat job of it, because my ‘invisible’ hemming-down of the edge turned out to show through as an outline on the right side 🙁

As usual I couldn’t get anywhere near as close to the existing seam line as I wanted when attempting to machine-understitch the facing down – in this case, however, it was all to the good as it turned out to roll the facing thoroughly to the inside. (As you can see, I didn’t even attempt to machine anywhere close to the folded-down corners, being afraid that the presser foot would crush in the folds at the wrong angle.)

To sew the entire project, both by hand and on the (hand-cranked) machine, I used up some of the period thread in my grandmother’s stash: Sylko ‘Three Shells’ Machine Twist in shade D.422, Turquoise. It was probably a little heavier than would have been ideal, but the colour was a surpisingly good match for the bluish green of the blouse – and I can’t close the lid of my inherited workbox properly until I manage to get through some of the contents!

This is the one and only ‘draped’ garment I own out of a wardrobe full of front-buttoning blouses and even dresses, and it’s not a style I would ever have considered buying. But the result has been far more successful than I would have thought. For one thing, it wasn’t until I had already cut out the pieces that I realised to my horror that I had rotated the fabric by ninety degrees: the grain was running side-to-side rather than top-to-bottom! (A combination of a smallish, squarish length of fabric and a four-way pattern print.) There was absolutely nothing I could do about it at this stage so I ploughed ahead regardless on the grounds that at least the grain was straight. In fact it doesn’t seem to have affected the drape of the garment at all; this version hangs rather better than my original muslin which was in the correct alignment.
A beautiful drape
I have worn it several times (including, appropriately, to my grandmother’s commemoration service; seen teamed here with my great-grandmother’s crystal necklace) and it has garnered many compliments: the main trouble is that before I dare to wash it I really need to darn up the dozen or so pinholes in the fabric in case they spread….

  1. That top has a great balance of interesting personality and normal wearability!

    By the way, when watching Mad Men this Sunday I jumped when Peggy Olsen showed up in a great side-pleated skirt. “I just saw a skirt like that on Sew Retro!” I announced to my husband. Strangely, he was not as excited as I was… ;^)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.